Review: Casa Reyna offers authentic, compelling regional Mexican cuisine
July 11, 2013 4:00 AM
Juan Velasco Raymundo stacks fresh tortillas as they come off the cooling conveyer at Casa Reyna in the Strip District. Behind the windows is the restaurant's dining room.
Angel Lopez places balls of dough on the conveyor belt, which will bring them into the tortilla press at Casa Reyna in the Strip District.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Do not miss the underground dining room adjacent to Reyna Foods, the grocery store in the Strip District that's the go-to place for homemade tortillas and chips, chilis and Mexican ingredients.
Down the stairs, the 72-seat space with several side rooms make up Casa Reyna, the handsome restaurant that owner Nicola DiCio built over the past three years. To transform the space, he repurposed beams of red oak and chestnut from his 50-acre White Oak Farm, which straddles Hampton and Indiana townships, a property that has been in his family for generations. It's also the place where he grows peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and herbs.
The restaurant that opened at the end of May displays a passion for details, resourcefulness and ambition of the man we have to thank for bringing Pittsburgh this compelling Mexican restaurant.
Notice there is no mention of "Tex-Mex" or "taqueria," because it's neither of those things. Do not expect burritos and street food here.
Lunch and dinner menus display dishes from three regions of the country: Oaxaca, Guadalajara and Mexico City, prepared by three cooks versed in regional ingredients and techniques.
"This is not our interpretation of dishes," Mr. DiCio said. "These dishes are the way it is if you travel to these areas."
In the dining room, customers sit at high-backed chairs around muscular tables. Hand-painted murals of Mexican scenes and weathered signs decorate the space.
Along one wall lies the open kitchen. In the half-moon window on the pass, a giant mortar and pestle sit to remind diners the food here is made by hand.
Another wall houses a bank of windows where diners can watch tortillas being made by employees who guide a machine that Mr. DiCio made specifically for the restaurant.
"There are so many types of tortillas," Mr. DiCio said.
Those crafted here can't be bought at the market, as they're made to be eaten immediately.
Mr. DiCio knows tortillas. Having started the tortilla chip factory along the banks of the Allegheny River, he developed a taste for them from his mother, Lydia Reyna, born in Reynosa, Mexico, 3 miles from the Texas border. His factory supplies chips to Big Burrito's Mad Mex restaurants.
He explained the difference between those made with flour, salt, baking powder and corn oil as well as corn tortillas stone ground with mineral lime. Additives can ensure a longer shelf life. Those made in the restaurant have no preservatives.
"Tortillas are very complicated," said Mr. DiCio, who just hired a tortilla maker from Texas, Alex Villareal, to help with production.
When perusing the menu, start with chips and a quartet of salsas ($5). Service is quite efficient -- perhaps too efficient. If your table plans to relax and stay awhile, give servers a sense of pacing.
"Let's order whatever is hottest," is a diner's request. Among the nine salsas on the menu, such as spicy or sweet mango, chipotle, peanut and casera, habanero lends a slow roll of heat, sweetened with onions and tomatoes. A roja salsa with arbol peppers lagged behind, delivering a toasted mellow spice layered with tomatillo. On a most recent visit, chips were oversalted.
Guacamole Reyna ($7) beats the original ($7) with its addition of mint and serrano peppers, minus crema.
Elsewhere among starters, elotes ($8) arrives as a dip, roasted corn with cotija and mayonnaise for richness, cilantro and lime and chile pepper for kick. I'm happy with the off-cob presentation so we don't have to wear it, as many presentations are often condiments spread on a roasted corn cob wrapped in foil.
The seafood in the ceviche ($10) is quite nice, as fat shrimp marinade in lime juice, layered with tomatoes, jalapeno, avocado and salsa. Pile ingredients in that fresh tortilla for one of the more refreshing bites on the starter menus.
Mini tacos ($10) are just that, a less bulky potpourri of ingredients than street food versions sold by Edgar on the sidewalk outside the restaurant at lunch. Rounds show off chorizo, lengua (beef tongue), cubes of crispy pork, lamb, grilled fish or vegetables, each with a stripe of chopped cilantro, a sprinkle of onions, a pot of salsa and lime. Entree tacos present as a larger pair, with rice and beans. For both orders, take note: A diner can't mix and match tacos.
Among entrees, chile rellenos ($15) are quite flavorful, as two poblanos are stuffed with picadillo, battered and simmered in salsa and served with warmed tortillas. Flautas ($15) present as crispy corn tortillas cigars, stuffed with terrific roasted chicken or barbacoa dressed with queso fresco, guacamole and crema.
The tamal Oaxaqueno ($10) is revelatory, this football-sized packet wrapped in plantains, filled with chicken, masa and mole.
"The Oaxacan tamale is different from the Tex-Mex version," Mr. DiCio said, "in that the plantain imparts a different flavor than a corn husk."
Lard in this recipe and others is also key, as it's imparted into the masa, also made on site.
Do not skip the nopales ($3), a side of slivered and pickled cactus paddles. It serves the same purpose as a vinegar-doused slaw, yet it's heartier and more flavorful.
On weekends, Casa Reyna serves as a bakery, when Mr. DiCio sets up outdoor seating and an indoor cafe where Mexican sweet breads, empanadas and espresso are sold.
"I'd been looking for a baker for five years," Mr. DiCio said.
Turns out, a dishwasher he had hired told him he's a panadero. Mr. DiCio asked his employee to bake for him, and he realized that he'd found the person he had been looking for.
"The whole place was filled with smells I remember from Mexico," he said.
It would be remiss not to mention the drinks at the bar tucked away in a corner, where diners talk among bartenders mixing their umpteenth margarita, which, by the way, are quite good. Sorry, no frozen drinks here.
Purists in search of an education can ask a bartender to walk through the tequila flights, which include descriptions of highland and lowland styles, as well as dozens of blanco plata (white), reposato (rested) and anejo (aged) tequilas.
Also made from scratch are the flavored waters, limeade and the sweet, milky-white horchata.
Mr. DiCio also has created a wine room here, stacked with product he has made, which includes merlot, cabernet franc, shiraz, chardonnay and pinot grigio, which, for the time being, is private stock. He's planning on getting a license that will allow him to sell it.
This wine room is a tribute to the winery, brewery and distillery he intends to set up in a building he has purchased in the Strip.
Chances are, as the case is already with Casa Reyna, this also will grow into a formidable project from a man who is shaping the way Pittsburgh dines.